Sainsbury’s not alerting customers to health risk of eating toxic gamebirds

Last week we learned that Sainsbury’s was selling a new product – a mixed game casserole, made of 50% venison and 50% pheasant and red legged partridge.

It’s being produced by a company in North Yorkshire called Holme Farm Venison and acccording to the packaging, this product is ‘endorsed’ (ahem) by the British Game Alliance (BGA), whose ‘kitemark’ is stamped on the front (see here for earlier blog).

[Photo by Ruth Tingay]

Amazingly, the packaging did not include any warning that the product may contain toxic lead ammunition and nor did any of the ‘on shelf’ information provided by Sainsbury’s.

Given the very serious public health risk of consuming any amount of toxic lead shot (the Food Standards Agency says there is no safe level and lead is a particular risk to children and pregnant women), this lack of information was of concern. Other supermarkets, such as Waitrose (here) have committed, by 2021, to not even be selling gamebirds that contain toxic lead shot, let alone not providing any health warnings (although see here), so Sainsbury’s seemed to be way behind the curve.

Blog readers were encouraged to contact Sainsbury’s, and the supplier, Holme Farm Venison, and ask for information about the toxic lead content of this product.

Many thanks to all of those who did. Sainsbury’s has now responded, and thanks to several blog readers who have sent us the standard reply, which goes like this:

Thank you for your recent e-mail received by Simon Roberts. He has has me to personally respond to you on his behalf.

The product you have enquired about is a branded product (not Sainsburys own brand) and we would encourage any further questions to be directed to Holme Farmed Venison, through their customer helpline.

The Branded Holme Farm Venison (HFV) game products are assured by the British Game Alliance (BGA). The British Game Alliance independently audits all shoots participating in the accreditation, ensuring that they are all compliant with the requirements.

Lead shot is being phased out, but is still in use, however HFV products only select from meat that has no shot in it. Initially, visually inspected and then metal detected at the game processor and again visually inspected in the final pack. There are additional warnings on pack that refers to shot to ensure customers are aware.

Kind Regards,

Wow. It’s hard to know where to start with that.

There seem to be two issues. First of all, Sainsbury’s is using the so-called ‘assurance’ of a British Game Alliance kitemark as an indication of the product being sourced from estates that ‘meet rigorous and ethical standards’. But as has been pointed out several times on this blog, the British Game Alliance (BGA) is secretive about its members, and some of those we do know about either have been, or still are, under active police investigation for alleged wildlife crime offences relating to the illegal persecution of birds of prey (e.g. see here, here and here). How is the Sainsbury’s customer supposed to know which BGA-assured members are supplying these half a million pheasants and red-legged partridge for the casseroles and whether those estates are indeed meeting ‘rigorous and ethical standards’ if the estates aren’t named?

The second issue is much more serious, and that is the lack of a public health warning on this product. Sainsbury’s must be the only supermarket in the world, ever, to be claiming that its supplier, Holme Farm Venison, ‘only select from meat that has no shot in it‘.

Really? Really, Sainsbury’s? Do you really believe that?

And if that is the case, then why is the supplier adding a warning on the package that says, ‘Whilst every effort is made to remove shot from the meat, please be aware, some may remain‘ ? It’s a clear warning, even though it fails to mention the toxicity of the shot:

If some shot may remain, as the supplier warns, then potentially this product may contain toxic lead shot (i.e. poison). In fact despite all the undoubtedly well-intentioned efforts the supplier may go to to remove lead shot pellets (poison), it’s well known that even when pellets are removed, high lead levels (poison) can remain from the tiny, tiny fragments that shear off when the ammunition tears through the flesh of the victim.

It’d be very embarrassing for Sainsbury’s if somebody decided to test a load of these game casseroles for lead ammunition (poison) and found them to contain, er, poison. This has been done before, a couple of years ago, when Mark Avery bought 40 frozen red grouse from Iceland supermarkets and had them tested for toxic lead ammunition (poison). Here’s what he found:

More than three quarters of the lead levels measured in Iceland Foods’ grouse meat would have been illegal if found in beef, pork, chicken etc where there is a level set (Maximum Reside Level) above which meat is illegal.  Over a third of the grouse meat samples contained ten times the MRL for lead. Two samples contained very very high lead levels: one of 168 times the MRL and the other of 3699 times the MRL.  Overall, the lead levels in these 40 samples of grouse meat were 100 times the MRL‘ (see here).

There may also be an issue here for Trading Standards and for the Food Standards Agency. Surely, surely Sainsbury’s has a duty of care to its customers and must warn them that they could be buying a product that could be a serious risk to their health (i.e. that contains poison)?

If there are any Trading Standards Officers reading this, or any experts from the FSA, please get in touch.

If you are a customer of Sainsbury’s and you’d like to know more about how this mixed game casserole meets the company’s responsible and sustainable sourcing codes for meat products, and ask why it has an apparently complacent attitude towards its customers’ health, please contact Sainsbury’s CEO Simon Roberts at simon.roberts@sainsburys.co.uk

23 thoughts on “Sainsbury’s not alerting customers to health risk of eating toxic gamebirds”

  1. I wrote to Sainsbury about lead warnings and provenance aand the 2 issues have not been addressed in their reply below:

    Dear Ms Bliss

    Thank you for your enquiry, the product you have enquired about is a branded product (not Sainsburys own brand) and we would encourage any further questions to be directed to Holme Farmed Vension, through their customer helpline.

    The Branded Holme Farm Vension (HFV) game products are assured by the British Game Alliance (BGA). The British Game Alliance independently audits all shoots participating in the accreditation, ensuring that they are all compliant with the requirements.

    Lead shot is being phased out, but is still in use, however HFV products only select from meat that has no shot in it. Initially, visually inspected and then metal detected at the game processor and again visually inspected in the final pack. There are additional warnings on pack that refers to shot to ensure customers are aware

    Kind Regards

  2. What you haven’t pointed out is that having no solid shot doesn’t mean there is no lead. I was hocked rigid by the xrays on mark Avery’s blog showing what happens when a lead bullet hits a deer – I’d always assumed that the bullet was it, but in fact minute fragments spread widely through the nearby meat and I would imagine are far more effectively toxic than a single piece of soild shot.

    Quite apart from that, trying to disown Sainsbury’s from a product they are selling may be a good try by their lawyers but is a PR disaster – the trust is in the brand name, and my trust has just been severely dented.

    What this proves is that if supermarkets want to sell shot game their only answer (and that includes Waitrose) is to lean really heavily on their suppliers. They have the power – it is time they used it.

    [Ed: Hi Roderick, thanks for your comment. I did refer to the issue of tiny fragments, in the paragraph directly underneath the last photo. Perhaps I didn’t give it enough prominence because you’re right, it is an important point and one that is often glossed over by those with vested interests.

    You are also right about this being a PR disaster for Sainsbury’s. Talk about car crash. They need to sort it, pronto]

  3. I wrote to Sainsburys and got the standard reply. I have written again (yesterday) pointing out how inadequate the reply is and making a number of points about how BGA is a self regulatory nonsense, even if there is no visible shot it may still contain high lead levels, there is no reference to FSA advice about the consumption of lead shot game and what a PR disaster this is for Sainsburys brand name. We shall see what sort of reply if any I get.

  4. Sainsbury’s statement might come back to haunt them, it surely cannot in law be the responsibility of the customer standing in the aisle to contact the supply chain (HFV). The contract of purchase is made between the customer and Sainsbury’s. All they have to do is change the labels to clearly say (if it wasn’t with 100% certainty shot with lead free ammo) ‘this meat may contain lead & lead is known to be poisonous’, and let people make their informed choice.

  5. Looks like Sainsburys could be on shaky ground.

    The Sale of Goods Act 1979 (to the best of my knowledge applies to food among other goods) states that all goods purchased or sold in the UK must be as described, of satisfactory quality and fit for the purpose they were manufactured for.

    The pertinent aspect of that legislation is that the retailer is responsible for what is sold. Faults/unsatisfactory quality may well not be the fault of the retailer, but they are his responsibility. If a retailer sells a tin of beans that happens to be “off” when opened then that retailer carries the can (pun intended).

    Quite disappointing to see a company with a good reputation take a risk with something like this.

  6. Dear RP, I received the standard reply from Sainsbury’s xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx I sent this reply to her.

    “Thank you for your response but in fact you, Sainsbury’s, have decided to sell this product. My arguments re the lead still stand because they do not guarantee that there is no lead in their product. If you read the research done on the lead content of game shot with lead pellets you will discover that the lead pellets degrade on hitting the bird and minuscule particles of lead are spread throughout the flesh of the dead bird. Since there is no safe limit on lead this food product should not be being sold in your shops. Please take the trouble to look into the research. Many thanks“

    I look forward to seeing her response. Hopefully they will take their responsibility seriously and stop selling game.

    Incidentally, the food laws applying to game vary widely from those applicable to ordinary meat. For example you can kill a deer and it doesn’t have to be gutted/bled etc according to the rules which would apply for pork for instance. I’m guessing that there are not a lot of food laws to which the game bird industry have to adhere. They seem to be outwith the normal standards for food production. This is something which maybe ought to be clarified, so that people know how the meat has been handled etc before it gets into a casserole pack. For example how long the meat has been left before being gutted, and at what temperature the carcasses are stored until they are processed etc.

    Thanks for all your hard work Lesleyjane Clifford

    Sent from my iPad

    [Ed: Thanks, Lesleyjane. You might be surprised to learn about the laws that should be adhered to for handling gamebirds. I reckon some estates may also be surprised. Have a look at this:

    https://www.food.gov.uk/business-guidance/wild-game-guidance ]

  7. A practical example of the fragmentation upon impact of lead ammunition occurred during the process of reintroducing Red Kites into Yorkshire. Blood tests were carried out on the young birds om two occasions – once shortly after they were collected from the donor population and again before they were released. We were puzzled to find that the lead levels in their blood rose during the pre-release period when they were housed in large pens. They had been fed mainly on rabbit which had been shot using .22 lead ammunition. All rabbits were checked visually and by palpation to ensure that there were no residual bullets. In all but one instance there was an obvious hole where the bullet had exited the carcass, the one exception being the only instance where an identifiable piece of ammunition – a grossly distorted bullet – was found in the carcass.

    The raised lead levels revealed by the blood tests prompted detailed examination of a sample of several rabbits obtained from the same source. This showed that there were small fragments of lead around the wounds which were not detectable by a visual examination. As intimated by Roderick, no doubt the small size of such fragments would make them all the more potentially toxic. No doubt a similar fragmentation had occurred from the lead shot used to shoot the grouse which Mark had tested.

    Where lead shot is concerned, fragmentation may be attributable, not only to its impact with hard parts of the target’s anatomy, but also to shot which has already impacted the bird being struck, milli-seconds later, by other shot from the same cartridge.

  8. In the investment world, the bottom line is always ‘do your own research’. That definitely applies in this case.
    For Sainsbury’s to say that it’s not their problem and refer us back to the manufacture is not only an enormous cop out, but I’m really not sure it is even legal.
    As a customer, your contract is with the company you purchased the product from, not the maker. That they are not taking responsibility for what they put on their shelves is to say that they don’t give a damn about a products safety. Further, saying that lead is being phased out can only be repeating what the supplier has told them. When selling food you should ALWAYS do your own research.
    I got my reply today at 11.16, one minute before seeing your post. I will be writing back!

  9. AND Sainsbury supports the Conservative party who support shooting & hunting! Another great reason to boycott their stores

    1. Seems to be a lot of support for shooting among people of other political persuasions. Support comes in varying forms including failure of parties in power to act against the wildlife criminals. Our heroes / heroines in Holyrood come up short in that respect.

  10. Two announcements on the BASC website today:

    Can anyone translate the first one below i.e. is shooting banned in England during lockdown or not?:

    https://basc.org.uk/basc-ceo-issues-message-on-latest-lockdown-in-england/

    The second is the BASC PR on a study pre-empting (?) the Werritty Review – again difficult to understand what BASC are concluding:

    https://basc.org.uk/new-scottish-government-funded-research-confirms-major-socio-economic-importance-of-grouse-shooting/

    1. The BASC CEO blurb contains phraseology which is up there with the recent Dragon’s Den spoof video.

      We are told:
      – that shooting is ‘fantastic exercise and beneficial to our physical and mental health’.
      – about ‘passionate shooting people’.
      – that ‘shooting as we know it cannot take place in many formats is distressing’.
      – ‘There are undoubtable physical and mental health benefits for getting outside with our gun and enjoying the sights and sounds of our wonderful countryside’.

      Good of him to confirm that there are mental health issues associated with shooting. In particular the distressing negative effect of being deprived of getting out there and killing things whilst spoiling the enjoyment of ‘our wonderful countryside’ for folks intent on less destructive activities.

      You just couldn’t make it up. Hope The Times latches onto this.

    2. I got as far as this in the report referred to above…

      “While the case studies were selected systematic ally, they represent a relatively small set of estate examplesdrawn from a large pool of potential cases across Scotland and are not a representative sample of all enterprisesof these types. As such,the results are only indicative of the types of socio-economic impact that arise from different land uses,meaning that care should be taken using the data to make broad conclusions about uses of Scotland’s moorlands.”

  11. I contacted Sainsburys three times about this.
    The second response from Sainsburys is as follows :

    ‘Dear Ms Berrington,

    Thank you for your further email.

    At present Sainsbury’s will not providing any further update regarding your concerns, and we would encourage any further questions to be directed to Holme Farmed Vension, through their customer helpline. ‘

    Shocking that they are absolving themselves of their responsibility by suggesting it is up to me to contact Holme Farm Venison ,presumably so I can ask them directly whether they are involved in any illegal activity !
    Sainsburys have shown their true colours regarding their relationship with the Game industry and their concern for customer safety,

  12. What a load of fucking tripe I,ve been eating game for 70years and still work manually for 14 hours a day

    1. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/lead-poisoning-and-health#:~:text=Lead%20exposure%20can%20have%20serious,mental%20retardation%20and%20behavioural%20disorders.

      Lead exposure can have serious consequences for the health of children. At high levels of exposure, lead attacks the brain and central nervous system to cause coma, convulsions and even death. Children who survive severe lead poisoning may be left with mental retardation and behavioural disorders.

      Hard luck, Alfie, looks like you drew a short straw.

    2. It also seems that regularly ingesting lead for over 70years (sic) can render one incapable of using full stops or distinguishing between an apostrophe and a comma!

    3. Alfie, I too have scoffed plenty of game, rabbits and pigeons shot with usual lead cartridges down the years. I think I am okay. But I am circumspect and cautious and I would prefer not to have to fuss and poke about with the meat to pick out pellets. Likewise, I live in an old house with archaic old lead water pipes. I don’t lose sleep over it, but if I was building a new house I obviously wouldn’t choose to fit lead pipes. It is just a bit of sensible progress, no compelling reason to oppose it.

    1. Sainsbury is ignoring my follow up emails but yes it’s not available. Let’s hope it is due to the pressure applied

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